- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) completed a multiyear distribution agreement with DirecTV last night, giving the Washington Nationals their first exposure on cable or satellite TV.

MASN will appear on DirecTV’s channel 626 and plans to show 68 Nationals games, supplementing the 67 scheduled for the rest of this season on WDCA-TV (Channel 20). MASN went live on DirecTV shortly after first pitch of last night’s Nationals-New York Mets game.

The DirecTV-MASN deal originally was to be announced early last week, but was delayed because of a lawsuit filed against the Baltimore Orioles, MASN’s majority owner, and Major League Baseball by Comcast SportsNet (CSN) claiming breach of contract.

To that end, the DirecTV-MASN deal will only heighten the already considerable tension between the Orioles-controlled MASN and Comcast Corp., CSN’s corporate parent. DirecTV intends to use the agreement as a major promotional tool against its cable rival, employing a successful strategy used in New York when the Yankees’ regional sports TV network, YES, was battling against Cablevision Corp.

“We stepped up to the plate and cable didn’t,” said Bob Marsocci, DirecTV vice president. “We will be out marketing very aggressively on the heels of this.”

MASN’s exposure on DirecTV this season will be limited to Nationals games, but starting March 1 it plans to begin continuous programming from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Next season MASN intends to show 150 Nationals games.

The Nationals games will be shown regionally using an inner-market/outer-market strategy. Within the immediate Washington area, games will be on either MASN or WDCA, depending on WDCA’s schedule. In areas such as greater Baltimore and the far outer District suburbs, every Nationals TV game will be on MASN.

The new agreement, however, does not contemplate the arrival of the Orioles, as had been extensively discussed before the Comcast lawsuit. The Orioles intend to shift their local pay TV games from CSN to MASN starting in 2007, but Comcast claims it holds a contractual right of first refusal before the Orioles make any such move. Comcast is seeking an unspecified amount of punitive and compensatory damages and a formal halt to MASN’s operations.

MASN, which ultimately plans to implement equal distribution patterns for both the Nationals and Orioles, now hopes to use the DirecTV deal as a tipping point to promote additional carriage deals. Negotiations are also ongoing with Dish Network, the other major satellite TV carrier.

“This is a major victory for us,” said Bob Whitelaw, MASN executive vice president and general manager. “It wasn’t really a matter of convincing them to go forward [despite the lawsuit] but following through on negotiations we’ve been having for weeks and fulfilling our absolute commitment to getting these Nationals games on as quickly as possible. This is only the first of these deals.”

But Comcast executives said it will not carry MASN on any of its cable systems while the litigation is ongoing.

“This is great news for Nationals fans because it no longer means they’re held hostage by Comcast and its monopoly,” said Vince Wladika, MASN spokesman.

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